By Rashod D. Ollison
Beginning in the late summer of 1979 and continuing well into the fall of 1980, David Byrne and Brian Eno were holed up in five recording studios in New York and Los Angeles, piecing together rainbow glints of sound. Using analog technology — the only kind available at the time — the art-rock duo doggedly tried to synchronize sampled voices with their multilayered instrumental tracks.
With no digital sequencing software, the process was tedious and often frustrating. However, the two still managed to come up with richly evocative, even groundbreaking music, albeit mostly by accident. The album, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, was finally released in early 1981 and garnered generally favorable reviews. The pioneering recording techniques used on the album — particularly the splicing of sampled voices with heady electronica and ambient music — would influence numerous producers and DJs, most notably Moby.
Fast forward 27 years, past countless musical trends and head-spinning technological advances. Byrne and Eno decide to collaborate on another album, a belated follow-up to My Life. This time the new set,Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, doesn't take nearly as long to make. The two are never together in the studio. In fact, they're never in the same country during the entire process. Eno is in his London studio while Byrne is at home in New York.
"Brian had some tracks and wanted me to write some words and tunes. Years ago, that would have implied going into the studio together to do all that," says Byrne, who will headline a solo show playing cuts from the new album tomorrow night at the Lyric Opera House. Eno opted not to tour. "Now we can just e-mail the tracks back and forth. I would record vocals over whatever he implemented and send him back an MP3 and say, 'Here's my idea.' It's amazing how easy it is once you get the technical glitches worked out."
Once the album was done, Byrne and Eno decided to digitally release the album viaeverythingthathappens.com. A physical CD will be manufactured and distributed soon.
"The record didn't cost us very much," says Byrne, who's probably best-known as a founding member and chief songwriter for the new wave group Talking Heads. "We hadn't made a deal with a record company. But did we need it? We put our money where our mouth is and did it ourselves. We hired people to build a Web site around it, which is more than what a starting artist could do."
Last year, the multiplatinum rock band Radiohead initially released its latest album, In Rainbows, as an exclusive digital download, whistling in a new distribution trend for established acts. But the group let fans decide how much they wanted to pay for the music. On their site, Byrne and Eno offer three formats at different prices: digital only is $8.99; a CD with liner notes is $11.99; and a deluxe package including bonus songs, a short Hillman Curtis film about the album and a miniature hardbound book is $69.99.
"So far it's paid back the recording costs and costs for building the Web site," says Byrne, a native of Scotland who grew up in Arbutus. "But you can't pay the rent by breaking even. It's easy for Brian and I because we're a known entity. For somebody starting out, they have to find some way to get people to hear what they haven't heard before. The good thing is that technology allows them to make their music. You don't have to go in much debt to do that now. But we're all going to need help on the marketing end."
Other than a few interviews and entries on Byrne's blog, the duo has relied mostly on word of mouth to generate downloads for Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. Although the Internet is steadily annihilating the distribution infrastructure of record companies, Byrne says the Web is still too vast a place to market new music.
"It's so infinite. It's easy for music to get lost out there," he says. "I can't think of a system that takes the place of what major labels are still able to do with marketing."
But with no expensive, all-encompassing ad campaign, Everything That Happens has still attracted fans. "Strange Overtones," an amorphous but funky standout and a free stream available from the album, was downloaded more than 40,000 times in the first three days it was available. Eno's arrangements remain eerily strange but accessible while Byrne's lyrics take on a spiritual context. Biblical allusions and images of redemption abound.
"Upon starting this project, we quickly realized we were making something like electronic gospel," Eno says. "This notion tapped into my long love affair with gospel music, which, curiously was inadvertently initiated by David and Talking Heads."
Throughout his 30-plus years as a musician, with and without Talking Heads, Byrne has explored a potpourri of styles from opera to Afro-funk. Even in his artistic endeavors, the longtime New York resident finds music in the most unlikely places. For one of his latest exhibitions, Playing the Building, Byrne programmed the Battery Maritime Building, a 99-year-old ferry terminal in Manhattan, to play music. He took the ornate building, which had been closed to the public for 50 years, and hooked the internal structure (pipes, heaters, pillars) electronically to an old pipe organ.
"It's surprising musical," says Byrne, 55. "There is some clanking, noisy sounds. It actually has a variety of sounds — flute sounds, deep bass sounds. There are not all these industrial noises."
The exhibit, which is free to the public, has attracted such visitors as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and eccentric pop artist Regina Spektor.
Byrne says his adventurous, left-of-center artistic spirit was shaped while growing up in Baltimore, where he briefly attended the Maryland Institute College of Art.
"I'd take the bus into town and hang out," he said. "It was exciting. The media spotlight wasn't there on us, so nobody was telling us what's not hot anymore. You kind of did your own thing."
Advances in technology may have made his musical and artistic processes smoother and faster these days. But for his tour, Byrne is keeping his show decidedly old-fashioned.
"I'm going out with a full band, singers and dancers. It's going to be more of a show than I've done in a while," he says. "People want to see that kind of thing, be out among other people at a show. That's something you can't get on your computer."